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City 1 - 0 United: Tactics and Trends

And just like that the crisis is over and the panic subsides.

Shaun Botterill

It was rarely pretty, but it was, ultimately, effective. (Even if there are voices in the press claiming it a victory for United – looking at you, Simon Barnes.) After a week of back and forth sparring in the media, Pellegrini and van Gaal named rather unsurprising lineups (although Clichy’s appearance was dictated by Kolarov’s eleventh hour injury).

With both sides missing one of their best players due to injury, Manchester’s bi-annual derby felt a little less star-studded than usual and at times, the missing quality could be felt. Feeling pressure from all sides (even Sam Allardyce took a thinly veiled shot at the Chilean this week), Pellegrini stuck to his 4-4-2, deploying Jovetic as the second striker, with Navas on the right and Milner assuming the role of inverted winger on the left. In midfield, Yaya Toure played ahead of the holding Fernando, while defensively Eliaquim Mangala’s injury meant a return to the starting line-up for Martin Demichelas, who again brought a calming presence to City’s back line.

For the first time in ages, United arrived at the Etihad with what appeared to be a very good chance of earning a positive result against their now noisy and not so little neighbors. Van Gaal fielded a 4-3-3, with Blind holding – and ultimately splitting the CBs when in possession – beneath Rooney and Fellaini in the midfield three, while Robin van Persie led the line, flanked on either side by Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj. In defense, it began with Shaw, Rojo, Smalling and Valencia but eventually ended as Shaw, McNair, Carrick and Valencia – hardly a back four worthy of United’s weighty history.

With United’s numerical advantage in midfield, as well as Fellaini’s continued rejuvenation, City didn’t control the game from the middle of the park as well as they have in recent derbies. Indeed, with Yaya and Fernando consistently marked by Rooney and Fellaini, and Jovetic picked up further up the field by Blind, City found the middle of the field far too congested in the initial phase of the buildup. It meant increased outlet passes to the fullbacks as play routinely started out wide.

While it’s an admittedly unpopular opinion (or at least was prior to City’s poor form), I find Jovetic and Navas to be increasingly frustrating players; the former for his toothlessness in attack and the latter for his incomplete game and one-trick pony attributes. Milner on the hand though, I continue to find delightful. His technical ability remains an underrated feature, and his defensive contributions and tactical discipline make him a manager’s dream – which thankfully, Pellegrini has finally come to realize. (I’d also like an award or applause or a ribbon, because I managed to praise Milner without using any of the following words: energy, work-rate, strength, stamina, or fortitude – my award, please.)

Against United, Milner completely negated United’s right-sided attack, as Valencia rarely moved forward and Januzaj was hardly involved in the game. On the left though, Shaw found life far more comfortable against Navas on route to his best match in a United shirt. (Just a small note on Shaw: the lad is stronger and faster than probably any left-back in the league – he should be dictating far more of the play than he does.)

For City, it was a match with two opponents, as Michael Oliver might well have come out of the tunnel in a United shirt. And be sure, I’m not a fan of blaming/critiquing/criticizing the referee, but some matches really do dictate at least a small note. And this was indeed one of those matches.

While he rightly sent off Smalling (now accepting nominations for a dumber two yellow accumulation red card), he missed three seemingly stonewall penalties – the second of which would have also meant a second red card (this one to Rojo, for hacking down Yaya on the stroke of halftime). There’s poor referring performances, bad refereeing performances and then, well, then there’s this. The only place for Oliver to go is up, but not before he’s relegated to a weekend of League 2 matches. No, really, enjoy Morecambe-Bury at the weekend, Oliver. And good riddance.

After a season of criticism (and for very good reasons), Yaya Toure turned in his best performance of the season – and to be honest, it isn’t close. His pass that released Clichy on Aguero’s goal was sublime, his energy was much improved, and his impact in the final third was finally evident. My only complaint was that I think he could have (should have?) done more in the first half to make himself available for the pass between the lines from Kompany and Demichelis. Nit-picking to be sure, but it’s an important feature to a side who builds out from the back.

And now a word on Pellegrini: after weeks of hearing about his rigid adherence to the 4-4-2, he again stuck to his philosophy. And while he was ultimately rewarded with all three points, questions (rightly) remain. Was it the correct choice to start a match of this magnitude outnumbered in midfield? (This remains a point of contention amongst the Yaya detractors/supporters: is it beneficial to continually play a 31 year old midfielder in a numerically outnumbered midfield?) Should he have made changes at halftime knowing United had to play the second half with ten men and Carrick in midfield? If lineups are determined against eleven men, shouldn’t an entire second of half of ten men dictate changes? And especially when the game is tied?

And what do we make of the fact that United only came back into the game after Pellegrini made his changes? Leading 1-0, why did Navas stay on at Milner’s expense? I understand bringing on Nasri, but why take off your best defending attacker? Especially considering the positive effect he’d had on the game? And again, why must he always play with two strikers? Wouldn’t City have been better off taking Jovetic off for Nasri? City would have been treated to more creativity while maintaining the strength on the wings.

One final note, this on the problem with second guessing tactics: no matter how astute the tactical decision, it must always be carried out by a set amount of human players, each of whom are subject to mistakes and human psychology. And that bit of human psychology is important in understanding why teams sit back once they've scored a go-ahead goal and now have the end result in sight. It stands to reason that players want to sit back and defend something they've achieved instead of going after more. And yes, it's often costly (see Villa vs Spurs yesterday), but it's difficult problem to combat.

I realize I’ve asked several questions without providing answers, but hey, isn’t that what this is about? I ask, rarely answer, and you comment. Have at it, then.